When Delia found herself back in the real world, she observed that she was in the southeastern corner of the South Hertling Super Centre, in a discrete spot between Emile's Fine Vintage Cellar and Harry's House of Ethanol-Based Beverages. Delia didn't quite follow how she had been transported into the mundane world any more than she had understood how they had left it. All she knew is that she was back, and with Alfred and Christian… and a few others.
Mostly, the newcomers were cats. Not everyday cats with fur and whiskers and breathtaking narcissism. The King's subjects wore jackets and coat, shoes and boots and all sorts of hats. Immediately, the began fanning out across the carpark – searching, no doubt, for the missing Ms Shan. The sight of a cat in a little trenchcoat and deerstalker hat made Delia laugh as it examined its surroundings with a magnifying glass. Delia's amusement froze into horror as she saw another, a small white cat with a bow behind its ear, it's cuteness turned something ghastly by a lack of any visible mouth beneath its pink nose.
For the second time that day, she found herself taking Alfred by the hand. This time, Alfred squeezed back less timidly. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 22: Revelation"
Alfred considered holding Delia's hand. The logic was, they were in a deeply unsettling situation and he ought to hold her hand to comfort her. In fact, he strongly suspected that he was more worried than she was, and mostly he wanted to hold her hand because he wanted to hold her hand.
In the end he didn't. With everything he believed to be true being wrung through some cosmic mangle, his fundamental timidity seemed calming. Perhaps more calming than having his hand held by the woman of his desires. Perhaps less. As it stood, he had no way of knowing.
They – Alfred, Delia and Christian – stood outside of normal space. That was obvious. The distances between objects was subtly wrong in ways he couldn't even begin to explain. Time was odd too, moving weirdly as if seconds were trudging through mud while minutes fluttered by like bees. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 20: King"
"Okay," Christian said, glancing around the now closed music shop. "Let me see if I have everything right. You've been invited to a meeting of a sinister secret society."
"Correct," Alfred said.
"And you believe that you should go and spy on this meeting and report back to Delia and Ms Shan who, as I'm sure we all know, are leaders of the resistance against the evil pyramid?"
"Good, good. You know, in context, that almost makes sense," Christian said. "But the next part is, you're too shy and nervous to be a good spy, so you want me to disguise myself as you using a high-tech hologram created by a supercomputer. That's the bit I'm having trouble with." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 16: Light"
Alfred generally tried to avoid talking to Jemmy Harrison. Jemmy was the proprietor of the South Hertling Super Centre's music shop, an establishment that had once been known as 'World of G-Strings'. The name had to be changed after it began attracting an undesirable – and disappointed – brand of customer. Jemmy had decided that that the new name had to be something cool and so, against Alfred's advice, he had renamed the place 'Ice Dealers'. Naturally, this caused even more problems.
Now the music store's sign was down, awaiting some new brainwave of Jemmy's. In the meantime the massive display of guitars in the windows did all of the work of attracting customers.
Alfred breathed deeply as he approached the nameless shop. He knew perfectly well that he was an aging divorcee slowly fossilising in his clock and watch shop. But Jemmy... Jemmy was boring. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 12: Music"
Delia had been hoping not to have to talk to Alfred directly. Nalda had refused to work as her envoy for some obscure Teutonic cyborg reason. Delia hadn't yet come up with a Plan B when Alfred walked into Storage Universe. She shook her head gently. She really hadn't want it to come to this.
Alfred took his time looking at the items on display, as for the thousandth time he worked up his courage to talk to her. For the thousandth time Delia there was just more to the man -- that somewhere under the bald, chubby Clark Kent of his exterior there was a bald, chubby Superman.
Perhaps, just perhaps this might not be the thousandth time he disappointed her.
"Hello, Delia," he said as he finally willed himself up to the counter.
"Hello, Alfred. How's business?"
"Tolerably good," he said. "Tolerably good… that is not really what I wanted to talk to you about." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 10: Spine"
"Is Fanaka here?"
Alfred looked up from his laptop where he was balancing his shop's books. Before him was a thirty-ish white man in a camouflage jacket over a t-shirt, who spoke in an accent Alfred couldn't place. "Today's Fanaka's day off," he said. "If you need a watch repaired, you can leave it with me and I'll give it to him tomorrow."
The man scratched his head. This gesture caused his jacket to fall open, so Alfred could see his t-shirt more clearly. It showed what looked like a feathered velociraptor in a pickelhaube helmet, one tiny arm held up in a Roman salute. This image was framed by a circle, and featured a line through the middle. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes – Part 8: Ghosts"
Alfred's usual lunch was a roast beef sandwich with horseradish. Most of his life, he'd eaten that on white bread with the crusts cut off, but his doctor had all but twisted his arm over his diet and so now he ate it on multigrain with crusts and alfalfa sprouts.
Today, though, today he was doing a thing that he rarely did, and that was eat out. He did this perhaps once a year and never happily. The great comfort of a regular lunch is never having to decide what to eat, but he had left his sandwich at home in the fridge, so it was eat out or go hungry. And eating out meant making a decision.
Alfred leaned on the counter of his shop and chewed his lip. There was a food court in the South Hertling Mall, but that was far enough away that he felt justified in ruling it out. And both of the food outlets at the Mega Centre had been destroyed at the coming of the Pyramid. That left just two choices, Carol's or the kebab shop. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 4: Food"
Delia loved untidiness. That would have surprised most people that met her. She wore immaculately tailored suits an kept her hair back in the tightest bun you could imagine. The jewellery she wore was restrained and tasteful. Her car was ten years old, but as clean and shiny as the day she bought it. Her staff at Storage World in the South Hertling Super Centre all looked at her with a mix of utmost respect and abject terror. She looked like the sort of person who said the phrase "a place for everything and everything in its place" more often than she said "good morning."
But she loved untidiness, sure enough. Mess, unruliness, chaos. She loved it like a valued enemy, a worthy foe. She loved it like a hunter might love a wily jaguar, like a chivalric knight might love his opposite number in the enemy lines, like a master detective might love a criminal mastermind. Oh, she'd fight her foe. Destroy it if she could. But that didn't for one moment make her love it any less.
The day she found the Measure, she arrived at work as she did every morning -- an hour before opening. She fed her guest in the cellar, then cleaned her little shop from top to bottom. She had already cleaned it before leaving the night before, but that made no difference. When her staff arrived, she would make them clean it again, for chaos is a tricky foe. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 2: Space"
It was nearing midday. Alfred could tell because shadow of the tip of the Pyramid pointed directly at the door of his shop. Alfred looked up into the burning eye of the vast structure and shook his head. Like most of the locals, he found that the best way to deal with the Pyramid was to not think about it too hard.
From his doorway, Alfred looked around the South Hertling Super Centre. It had been weeks since the Battle of Wellington Road and the rise of the Great Pyramid. When the gigantic structure had arisen from the ruins of the Mega Centre it had initially been bad for business. But other people had joined Alfred in not thinking about it too hard, and gradually the customers had returned.
A clock rang – the only clock in Alfred's shop that was set to the correct time and which had the ringer turned on. Twelve o'clock. Usually, Alfred hurried to the door by the third ring, but now he had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time to see Delia Crispin leave Storage World to go to Carol's Café. The same time ever day, precisely.
"Morning, Alfred," she said, her grey bun bobbing as she nodded at him. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes – Part 1: Time"